The film noir era may have officially ended sometime in the 1950s, but its striped shadow extends to today. After his commercially successful spin on the horror genre It Follows (2014), David Robert Mitchell’s new film Under the Silver Lake revisits and updates the tropes of film noir, focusing on an addled antihero investigating a dangerous mystery for the sake of a woman’s beautiful eyes in the City of Angels. Mitchell’s take is attuned to our digital and post-postmodern times and strikes a strange tone between comedy, discomfort, and millennial paranoia—but his is not the first film to employ and twist the codes of the genre to generate chills, laughs, and reflections on cinema itself. Here are five neo-noirs set in L.A. that have doubled down on key aspects of the genre and paved the way for Mitchell’s ambitious new film.
The Sick One: Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
While set in 1937, Roman Polanski’s 1974 Oscar-winning and unshakable Chinatown is a product of its time. Jack Nicholson brings his menacing reptilian bravado to private investigator Jake Gittes, a man who gets caught up in a complex conspiracy that’s both of communal importance—politicians debating the building of a dam to resolve L.A.’s endemic drought problem—and founded on extremely personal and taboo dilemmas, with beautiful dame Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) begging Gittes not to get involved even as she draws him in further.
This meeting of public and private matters has often appeared in the film noir genre, but it also fits perfectly with the climate of increased scrutiny and suspicion of authority that characterized the later years of the Vietnam War. When Jake hears the iconic line in the film’s final moments, the camera comes close to the stunned detective and seems to be mounted with a bright light bulb, like that of a TV crew or a tabloid photographer lusting after the gory details of a murder scene. Polanski doesn’t cut straight away, instead letting Nicholson inhabit that awfully uncomfortable feeling of hopelessness and injustice long enough to make the audience recoil too.
As the incredibly evil Noah Cross, John Huston is just as legendary as Nicholson (and clearly an inspiration for Daniel Day-Lewis’s perfectly mannered and chilling performance in There Will Be Blood, where water has been replaced by oil). His acting suggests an unstoppable systemic evil personified: By making Noah’s sins both business related and family bound, Polanski (with screenwriter Robert Towne) brings the sickening corruption hanging in the air in the mid-1970s into the viewer’s personal space. Once you’ve seen it, Chinatown never leaves you. Like Jake, you can’t forget it.
The Stoned One: The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)
The man leading the investigation in a classic film noir is never too impressive; often a drunk and always depressed, he nevertheless has a certain charm. In films like The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart undoubtedly complicated the idea of masculine sex appeal with his cigarette-smoke melancholy and sad eyes. But in their 1998 masterpiece The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers reimagined this moroseness as a gentle altered state. Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski—played by Jeff Bridges, showing a then new and now beloved side to his personality—is endearing because of his reluctance to get up from his couch. This laziness also makes him extremely funny: What if your private eye didn’t want to get to work, yet mysteries kept piling up on him anyway?
As opposed to conventional narrative logic as ever (even though the writing is tight under the surface), the Coens don’t make the Dude’s journey a smooth one. Each digression allows for more eccentric characters and sides of Los Angeles to appear: Experimental artists, cult members, and bowling-league superstars all play a part—or rather don’t really—in the Dude’s quest for his beloved rug, which was soiled when he was confused for another man named Lebowski. Instead of the web of conspiracies that a disgruntled PI typically reveals almost unintentionally in films such as Double Indemnity, the Dude can’t make meaningful connections between all the people he encounters because there aren’t any, or else they don’t matter.
Through Bridges’s post-hippie performance, the Coens present one comedic reading of the detective stereotype, where the character’s idiosyncratic nonchalance is revealed to be plain laziness and antisocial seclusion. But the Dude’s two closest friends and accidental fellow investigators also offer alternative takes: Veteran Walter (John Goodman) has the anger of a frustrated private eye, but none of the self-control or rational thinking required for the job; meanwhile, Donny (Steve Buscemi) turns the antihero’s typical haplessness, paralyzing doubt, and anxiety into a debilitating and eventually fatal condition.
Already a pessimistic take on the American Dream and the ideal of the self-made man, the model of the film-noir detective is ridiculed in The Big Lebowski—instead of knowing a brutal death in the hands of a dangerous dame or for the sake of a corrupt and cruel system, the hero gets a happy ending as an expectant father (the film’s belief in the hope of family makes it the anti-Chinatown). And thus the Coens keep not quite answering the question they always ask: What is the purpose of living and of keeping on living? In the words of Sam Elliott’s mysterious cowboy narrator, who appears sporadically throughout the film, “I guess that’s the way the whole darned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands a time until we—aw, look at me, I’m ramblin’ again.”
The Dreamlike One: Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
Despite often focusing on women and the power of their sexuality, film noirs traditionally haven’t centered the experiences of femme fatales as often as those of the men they’ve destroyed. Often, the genre’s twists reveal a woman’s betrayal of a man, thus justifying some punishment; these revelations can feel somewhat cruel, given that patriarchal society is often what led these women to deceit in the first place. David Lynch offered a corrective to this tradition by focusing his 2001 film Mulholland Drive on a woman who herself longed to rewrite the film noir genre—or, at least, daydreamed about how different it could be.
Movies are dream machines not only in that they generate meaning in mysterious ways, through audio-visual combinations, but also because they can make us believe in the purest, most idealistic things—turns of events we would be suspicious of if we saw them play out in the real world. Lynch’s heroine Betty, played by Naomi Watts in her breakthrough role, knows this very well: She’s an actress who moves to Hollywood, hoping for all her dreams to come true and choosing to see the best in everyone, including the amnesiac, Rita Hayworth–looking woman (Laura Elena Harring) she finds hiding in her apartment one day. As the duo searches for clues to what happened to “Rita,” their relationship grows in intimacy and tenderness in a way that seems both true to how profound female friendships can feel, and yet also a little too soaked in movie magic.
Lynch is too sensitive to beauty, be it in the images or the human behavior he captures, to be deemed cruel, yet he plays with perspective with unforgiving tenacity. His sentimental flights of fancy are only as transporting as his melancholy is devastating—like a dream that suddenly turns into a nightmare. It would be true to how dreams function that a moment of great success for Betty—such as hers and Watts’s outstanding performance in an audition—would be the sublimation of a terrible injustice, generated by her own relentlessly hopeful brain but also the spectator’s, who instinctively longs for a positive outcome. Lynch implicates his audience in the very workings of his film by catering to Betty’s dreams (of Hollywood and movie sets, but also of romance, sex, and what her own personality could be), but also by revealing the sorrow that is at the root of these fantasies.
Lynch understands better than anyone how pop culture items such as old rock tunes and movie musicals are ingrained in everyone’s (sub)consciousness, quietly defining people’s aspirations and perception. In his version of a film noir, the dark plot twist uncovered by the detective is cold reality itself, made of callousness, dishonesty, and despair. It is what is left of the world when we can no longer dream.
The Meta One: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
Shane Black’s 2016 neo-noir The Nice Guys is nice indeed and, like every Black-penned film, gives its cast great characters to play—Ryan Gosling is especially at ease as an alcoholic investigator trying to do the right thing. But despite being more recent, The Nice Guys feels more old-fashioned than Black’s excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Perhaps returning to conventions makes sense once you’ve subverted them more thoroughly than anyone.
In perhaps his best and certainly one of his sexiest performances, a pre–Iron Man glow-up Robert Downey Jr. plays Harry Lockhart, a petty thief who ends up, like Bill Hader’s Barry, at an audition for a film whose plot mirrors closely his criminal lifestyle. Propelled to Hollywood thanks to his accidental Method approach, this eccentric loner finds himself enmeshed in a murder mystery with Gay Perry (an excellent Val Kilmer), the private eye who was supposed to teach him how to act like a detective, and his childhood sweetheart Harmony (Michelle Monaghan, in perfect energetic harmony with Downey), now a struggling actress. Harry is also the narrator, but unlike the detectives in the 1930s classics, he is both a terrible storyteller, jumping back and forth between past and present as he remembers key details, and disagreeable to his listeners, apologizing profanely for his clumsiness and unreliability.
Like French New Wave master Jean-Luc Godard said, all you need to make a film is a gun and a girl, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang follows this principle from its title and its narrative to its very style. While Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), for instance, builds up a sense of ineluctable tragedy with its airtight script, Black’s film is an organized mess deriving its thrills from chaos. Los Angeles and the crime genre are painted in more contemporary and realistic colors, just as Paris and the unlawful existence of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s small-time thief in Godard’s Breathless were at the time.
Black’s celebration of Downey’s dynamic—not to say neurotic—performance is just as transgressive of the genre’s norms. Instead of cool anger and misogynistic ideals, Harry is visibly tortured by a dilemma between not wanting to make waves, and protecting Harmony and women in general from harm. Even if his white-knight feminism occasionally verges on patronizing, it remains a nice change to see respect for women presented as a key character trait and narrative element in a Hollywood crime film, much like how the non-PC characters’ treatment of Kilmer’s character, who is gay, is meant to criticize their prejudice.
As though he were revisiting the 1970s’ reimagining of the 1930s film noir, Black plays with the 21st-century spectator’s expectations of perverse plot twists to highlight his characters’ humanity: Just like you and me, Harry and Harmony dread discovering a Chinatown-like conspiracy at the end of their journey.
The Other Stoned One: Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
“PARANOIA ALERT” writes P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in his notepad when, during an interview, he notices a connection between two cases he’s working on. He tries to remain calm nonetheless, but fails, grunting anxiously and his eyes widening with fear. He is also very high.
Instead of tapping into New Hollywood sensibilities like Roman Polanski and Shane Black before him, Paul Thomas Anderson sets Inherent Vice, his very own film noir, in 1970—choosing the lived reality of the times rather than how it transpired through the cinema of the era. This means replacing the alcoholism of the hardened, Chandler-esque detective with pot, and the big business schemes around the Los Angeles water system with real estate scams and drug trafficking (orchestrated, for Vietnam-era resonance, by an Asian crime syndicate). That setting also blurs the line between what Josh Brolin’s conservative Lieutenant Detective Bigfoot calls Sportello’s “bad hippie dream” and legitimate fears of conspiracy.
Inherent Vice is PTA’s funniest film and his least immediately comprehensible, but perhaps, as with the similarly perplexing and hilarious The Big Lebowski, pleasure is to be found in the journey and not the destination. At the time of its release, the film perplexed many spectators (its lengthy runtime didn’t help), but it thrilled many too, and remained ingrained in my memory despite the fact that I still don’t really know what happens in it. Phoenix impresses with his comedic timing and his atemporal quality: His oddness seems to fit into any era—or rather, not to fit into any of them, making him, paradoxically, always convincing. The particular traits of the film noir genre, too, appear to match perfectly with the turmoil of the flower-power era, as well as with PTA’s rule-breaking tendencies.
Doc seems to believe that getting high allows him to better employ his detective skills, and in that sense, he is a typical self-destructive investigator. He is also brought into an absurd series of dangerous situations by his love for Shasta Fay (an electric Katherine Waterston), the woman who broke his heart. Sexual liberation has complicated the relationship between men and women—Shasta leads Doc by the nose like a femme fatale even as she flaunts her chosen love for mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who in turn abuses her devotion. The narrator is both detached and part of the story, giving a hippie flavor to the grandiose and poetic declarations of the typical distressed raconteur: Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) is Doc’s friend and, as her name suggests, a spiritual type, who reads the stars and uses Ouija boards to get answers.
Like all the aforementioned filmmakers but with his uniquely bold playfulness and cinematic vision (even though Inherent Vice is based on Thomas Pynchon’s eponymous novel), PTA gets loose with the film noir form only to better honor its essential dualities: people’s simultaneous longing for and dreading of the truth, their desire to see things clearly or instead remain in the idealized world of their (intoxicated) mind, their striving for forgetting and their nostalgia. These dilemmas resonate because they are true to the human experience. They are no bad—hippie or American—dream.
Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.